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B5: Horror on the Hill by Douglas Niles
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B5: Horror on the Hill is a mixed outdoor and dungeon adventure for use with the Dungeons & Dragons game system. As with other adventures in the "B" series, the adventure is intended for low-level characters, however, the uneven level of the opposition is such that it is likely that many groups of characters will find themselves overwhelmed by their enemies in short order.

The module starts off with a brief introduction in which the outpost of civilization named "Guido's Fort" is said to be located at the end of the trader's road on the banks of the mile-wide River Shrill just across from the titular hill upon which the horror allegedly rests. I must admit that whenever I hear the name "Guido's Fort" it makes me think of Guido the Killer Pimp from Risky Business, which gives the background a somewhat humorous tone for me. The background also raises, for me, an issue I have with many published adventures, namely, the belief that roads would form the core of a trading network in a pre-industrialized society. In such a situation, the river would likely be the trading artery, not the road, and being located on the river would make Guido's Fort a major trading center, not a frontier outpost. This sort of change would make the isolation of the Hill untenable, however, and change the character of the adventure. Maybe I expect too much, but it is this sort of niggling detail that always bothers me when reading a published adventure.

Background details aside, the adventure is somewhat unevenly written. The PCs are expected to gather rumors (a handy table of mostly useful rumors is included), and then figure out how to cross the river and explore the hill. Little direction is given to the DM for motivating the characters to undertake the exploration of the hill, as is often the case with classic modules, the fact that monsters and treasure are there seems to be assumed to be enough (although some of the rumors would point towards giving a less greedy motivation). Once there, the characters are expected to wander about the Hill stumbling about until they come across the various dangerous inhabitants.

And then some of the flaws of the adventure start coming to the fore. As noted before, this adventure is intended for low level characters - specifically 1st through 3rd level characters. And the bulk of encounters are generally appropriate for those levels ranging from harmless oddities (a bush with magical berries) to standard monsters in manageable numbers (giant driver ants, hobgoblins, bats, and so on), to encounters which while dangerous could potentially result in profitable negotiations for the PCs (a tribe of Neanderthals and the mysterious sisters). However, a couple of encounters are potentially overwhelming for low-level characters (multiple ogres and ghouls for example), that one wonders if the module was properly play-tested.

Eventually, the PCs are expected to locate an abandoned monastery long ago dedicated to a forgotten, but presumably evil god. Some of the imagery associated with the monastery seems to be contradictory - while the evil god is depicted as being vile, ravenous, and lewd, the monastery seems to have been a place of contemplation, reflection, and serenity. It seems as if Niles felt the need to make a monastery, even one dedicated to an evil deity, feel like a place that had been inhabited by Franciscans. I suppose this is another niggling detail that probably bothers me, and few others.

The monastery, it turns out, is the staging location of a goblin army intent on sacking Guido's Fort. Once again, there is some dissonance here between the description of a potential army and the description contained in the module. While we are led to believe that the bulk of the army is in the process of being recruited (explaining the lack of a large army on site), the storerooms supposedly stocked with supplies for the army seem to be woefully inadequate. In any event, this part of the adventure seems to be the best designed of the whole adventure, with decent encounters, interesting puzzles, and generally tough but reasonable opposition.

Finally, the last portion of the adventure is an underground complex divided into three levels that are mostly independent of one another. The first is where the hobgoblin king who is organizing the army to attack Guido's Fort is located. The various goblinoid inhabitants provide decent opposition for the PCs, but oddly, they seem mostly to be far less challenging than some of the above ground encounters. If the PCs defeated, for example, one or more the various groups of ogres already, they should have little trouble with most of the dungeon dwellers on the goblin level.

The next two levels are somewhat odd - mostly because accessing them is not very intuitive. The second level of the dungeon complex can only be accessed by falling victim to a pit trap that guards the passage to the hobgoblin king's quarters (and the third level can only be accessed from the second level). If the characters do not fall for the trap, they will never see any of the underground complex other than the first level. If they do, then they will likely not confront the hobgoblin king. Either way, they will miss out on a fairly significant portion of the adventure, which seems to me to be poor module design.

The second level is a mixed bag of people trapped by the pit trap on level one, and some underworld creatures thrown in for variety. There's not much of note here, except that the only way out is a very non-intuitive one (the text goes to fairly great lengths to make clear that it would be impossible to get out by climbing the walls of the pit trap that dumped the PCs on this level). If the PCs make the somewhat large logical leap and find their way to the third level, that adventure area is a little more logically organized than the second level, and ends with an opponent that is quite dangerous, although most of the rest of the opposition on this level is laughable in comparison.

One side note, I have always been somewhat disturbed by some of the artwork in this module. The cover art shows three heavily armed "heroes" about to engage a pair of what appear to be Neanderthals clad in furs wielding wooden clubs. Page 4 features a pair of heavily armed and armored adventurers threatening a fairly pathetic looking bunch of goblinoids. In both cases, the "heroes" look like more than a match for their hapless opponents, which has always made me wonder exactly how heroic most of the supposed heroes in the game actually would appear to be if one could see them in action.

These sorts of concerns aside, Horror on the Hill is a fairly solid adventure. While a DM running this adventure needs to make sure that the tougher encounters don't crush the PCs out of hand, most of the adventure is more or less well designed. There are a few odd points where the adventure may bog down (the transitions between levels one and two and level two and three of the underground portion for example), but a decent DM should be able to provide sufficient clues to get the PCs moving along. Although there is nothing particularly noteworthy or outstanding about this adventure, it is a solidly designed adventure that should keep PCs enjoyably occupied for several gaming sessions. ( )
1 vote StormRaven | May 26, 2009 |
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